Jesus of Nazareth: Baptism to Transfiguration, by Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI

Jesus of Nazareth: Baptism to Transfiguration, by Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI

Tim Cannon
Benedict XVI's new book on Jesus Christ: true God and true man

From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration
Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI
(Bloomsbury, 2007, 374pp, hardback, $39.95. Available from Freedom Publishing)

Currently in the third year of his papacy, Pope Benedict XVI has in a very short time already established a clearly identifiable and orthodox ministry as the head of the Church, a ministry which does not shirk, but rather seeks to actively address the discord which exists between the Roman Catholic faith, and the social and political climate of our time.

A vast body of work bearing his authorship preceded Benedict's election as pope, and he has shown no sign of tempering this productive impulse since his accession to the Holy See.

With this in mind, let us turn to Benedict's most recently published work, Jesus of Nazareth: from the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration.

Benedict notes in his foreword that the volume has had a relatively long gestation. The then Cardinal Ratzinger began writing in 2003, but progress was understandably interrupted by his election to the papacy in 2005.

It is telling that, in the first major literary work of his papacy, Benedict's chosen subject is none other than the person of Jesus Christ.

Personal search

Turning again to the foreword, three things become immediately evident about this choice of subject: firstly, in focussing on the person of Christ, Benedict seeks to rectify a growing trend, both inside and outside the Church, which fails to recognise the full nature of Jesus Christ as true God and true man; secondly, that the choice of subject matter is motivated by a sense of personal urgency; and finally, that this work embodies Benedict's 'personal search for the face of the Lord', and is therefore not an exercise of the magisterium of the Church.

Each of these points bears some exploration.

Firstly, it is evident that through this book, Benedict seeks to guide the reader in a careful study of the nature of the person of Jesus Christ. This is an exceedingly worthy end in its own right, and particularly in this instance, considering the calibre of our guide, who commands a formidable academic reputation for his expertise in the theology and philosophy.

But central to Benedict's intention is the desire to overcome two erroneous tendencies which have taken root within the Church: firstly, the tendency among scholars to raise doubts regarding the divinity of Christ by viewing his life only through the restrictive prism of historical criticism, and to therefore see Jesus as being nothing more that an extraordinary man; and secondly, the tendency to turn a blind eye to various challenging historical realities concerning Christ's life, and to see only the divine attributes of the Son of God.

These fallacious tendencies erode the very foundations of Christianity. For if Christ was just a man, then he could not save us. Conversely, given that our knowledge of Christ as divine, as the second person of the Blessed Trinity, depends upon the material historical reality of His becoming man, Trinitarian theology is reduced to the realm of fiction if the historical events of Christ's life cannot be defended against historical criticisms.

Benedict's goal, therefore, is to show Jesus Christ as he really is, true God and true man, for it is on this reality that the legitimacy of Christianity depends. He achieves this by examining the events of the earthly life of Jesus Christ as they have been handed down to us, and by demonstrating that such events were and are intrinsically bound to Christ's divinity, and that His divinity is actually revealed through them.

To this end, the book is organised into ten chapters. Each of the first seven examines a particular event from the perspective of its unfolding as an historical reality, as well as from the perspective of its theological significance. Thus we are presented with a chapter each on the baptism of Jesus, the temptation in the desert, the Gospel mission, the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord's Prayer, the disciples, and the parables of Jesus.

These seven chapters draw heavily on the events depicted in the Synoptic Gospels, so that the author devotes a further chapter to themes unique to the Gospel of John. The final two chapters focus on the various conceptions of Jesus' identity in the Gospel texts, with particular reference to Peter's confession of faith, the Transfiguration, and Jesus' own declarations of identity.


Benedict draws primarily on the four Gospels of the New Testament in recalling the events of Jesus' life, but his analysis goes far beyond a personal interpretation of the Gospel texts. Instead, he makes full use of the rich depths of hermeneutical scholarship, of the historical-critical tradition (which seeks to interpret texts with regard to their contemporary context), and of the school of canonical exegesis (which examines a text's significance within the context of a broader body of work).

Recognising, on the one hand, their immense usefulness, and on the other hand, their major limitations, Benedict reaches beyond these interpretive disciplines, delving into the works of the Saints (particularly the Fathers of the Church), the Old Testament and the rich Judaic tradition, the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and the rich deposit of faith in the Catholic Church herself.

The clarity and depth of Benedict's insightful writing is perhaps most evident in his willingness to address and respond to serious scholarly criticisms which he does in earnest, charitably, yet authoritatively.

It was suggested earlier that the author has expressed a sense of urgency in his desire to publish this book. As it stands, the current volume is in fact only a portion of the intended whole, covering the first part of Jesus' public ministry, with the remainder of Christ's earthly ministry, including his Passion, Death, and Resurrection, as well as the documented events of his infancy, to be included in a further volume to be published at a later date.

The present volume is accessible, reaching out to the whole body of the faithful, and seeking to unveil the fruits of academic endeavours which might otherwise be well beyond our reach. The language is clear, and flows with a familiarity that is ultimately disarming; the inclusion of a glossary ensures that any gaps in the reader's comprehension are conveniently filled.

Although the book lacks an index of key words and themes, it includes a comprehensive annotated bibliography which will please readers wishing to immerse themselves in the volume's theological and hermeneutical depths.

In his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, Benedict suggested that true Christian discipleship, which presumes a labour of love, springs forth from a personal 'encounter with an event', the real event of Christ's Life, Passion, Death and Resurrection. It is fitting, then, that in Jesus of Nazareth, he seeks to make possible, and to revitalise this very encounter, by re-establishing the actuality of the event: the mysterious reality of the life and divinity of Jesus Christ.

Tim Cannon is a research officer with the Thomas More Centre.

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